Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #306: The Best American Comics 2014 edited by Scott McCloud

I feel like a churl complaining about a book like this, which clearly provides a wealth of great stuff for a low price: it's cheaper than a lot of single graphic novels, and longer than most of them. But just because something is good doesn't mean it can't be problematic, or that it couldn't be better somehow.

And the essential problem is this: the Best American Essays annual doesn't reprint three points and a conclusion pulled out of something longer, it only includes complete essays. And there isn't a Best American Novels, because those can't fit between two covers, and excerpts are not the same as complete works. There is a Best American Short Stories, which started the whole shebang many years ago -- but that's my point: throwing excerpts and story fragments together is an unsatisfying thing at best.

Look: Scott McCloud has done a great job with The Best American Comics 2014, as the prior editors have each done a great job in their own ways. Each book has been a well-curated collection of some excellent comics moments, drawn from the best work of their particular years. But...but! Ten pages out of the middle of something is not a story, no matter how carefully you choose it. And of the thirty-five pieces included here, a full eighteen -- more than half! -- have "Excerpt" after their titles. And several more are arguable cases as well.

I understand and sympathize with the impulse: I know how hard it would be to leave out Charles Burns and Raina Telgemeier and Saga and March and Chris Ware and Gilbert Hernandez. But they're really not here anyway: only broken pieces of their work is included. And I think assuming that comics can have pages and scenes yanked out of context for this series in way that the publishers would never dream of doing with, say, Wolf Hall for the Short Stories volume does damage to comics and the image of comics in the world.

If you're putting together an art book, you don't run a cropped section of Guernica. You show the whole thing. Comics should be treated with just as much respect.

All that said, there are a lot of good comics pages here, almost half of which are complete artistic works. (Though a sizable fraction of those are from the aggressively art-comics "Kuiper Belt" section -- McCloud, perhaps expectedly, has created a complicated taxonomy to slot the stories he's chosen into, with nearly a dozen sections with thematic links that the rest of us may even understand in some cases -- which are not "stories" in the conventional sense.) If you read a lot of comics, you may already be familiar with a lot of this book -- Mark Siegel's Sailor Twain and a Jaime Hernandez story from Love and Rockets and Ed Piskor's Hip-Hop Family Tree and Theo Elsworth's The Understanding Monster. But there are almost certainly going to be things new and surprising to you here, unless you actually are the series editor, Bill Kartlopoulous.

So this is definitely a worthwhile book for an individual reader I'm just concerned that it's not a good book, or a good model, for comics as a whole, which is a different ball of wax entirely.

(I've been grumbling about this series since the beginning, though I missed last year: 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.)

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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